Mos Def: Black on Both Sides

Mos Def

Black on Both Sides


IS MOS DEF'S Black on Both Sides a classic? I've found myself squabbling with naysaying hardcore purists over half a point on our respective scales of one to ten. Issues of contention: There's too much singing, not all the beats are banging, and what's with that rock song? But whether or not the debut from Black Star's star belongs in the same breath as 3 Feet High and Rising or It Takes a Nation of Millions, what's more important is that, finally, here's a hip-hop album worth arguing about.

Mos Def hardly finesses his own opinions, letting his romantic humanism ("Fear Not of Man") give way to not-so-far-fetched conspiracy theories ("New World Water") and frank, lyrical confrontation ("Mathematics"). Not content to generalize about the public's skewed vision of black and white, "Mr. Nigga" zeroes in on a star most Afrocentrists would as soon ignore. "You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna," Mos raps. "Woody Allen molested and married his stepdaughter/Same press kickin' dirt on Michael's name/Showed Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game/Holding hands. Now sit back and just think about that."

The album encourages you to do just that, with few tracks as head-nod-inducing as the first single, "Ms. Fat Booty." Produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammed (of A Tribe Called Quest), "Got" is almost easy-listening, but the young Brooklynite's tone and delivery sync perfectly. It's the MC's politicized vision of black music as a spectrum that allows for singing, instrumental jams, even some metal, although all of these elements blow up the musical scope without going pop. Few rap albums feel so deliberately crafted, and, classic or not, Both Sides has a sense of purpose and individuality that makes most eight-and-a-half-point albums seem beside the point.